Fearlessly taking on a seemingly terrifying task is a frightening situation for many people. The experience is even more alarming when it’s unprecedented, but courageous leaders are ultimately created by such daring encounters. That’s certainly the case for filmmaker Aislinn Clarke and the religious figureheads in her new horror movie, ‘The Devil’s Doorway.’
Clarke is the first woman to direct a horror film in Northern Ireland. Her found footage occult movie is inspired by the infamous true histories of Magdalene Laundries, in which fallen women were held captive by the officers of the Irish Catholic Church.
IFC Midnight is distributing ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ tomorrow in select theaters, as well as on VOD and via digital platforms, in the U.S. The official American release comes after the drama screened at such U.S. festivals as the Seattle International Film Festival and Cinepocalypse in Chicago.
‘The Devil’s Doorway’ showcase what unholy terrors lurk behind the walls of a secretive Irish convent in Northern Ireland in 1960. Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) are dispatched by the Vatican to investigate reports of a miracle—a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood—at a remote Catholic asylum for immoral women. Armed with 16mm film cameras to record their findings, the priests instead discover a depraved horror show of sadistic nuns, satanism and demonic possession. Supernatural forces are at work here, but they’re not the doing of God.
Clarke generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing and directing ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the Northern Irish screenwriter discussed how having a personal connection to, and intimate knowledge of, Magdalene Laundries inspired her to pen the period piece that focuses on the prime of the religious confinement institutions. The director also mentioned that her fond footage film is different from other entries in the horror sub-genre, as there are many moments where the shots are still, and clearly show the stunning performances from the small, but still powerful, cast.
The conversation with Clarke began with the filmmaker discussing why she was inspired to write the script for ‘The Devil’s Doorway,’ which also marks her feature film writing debut. “I’m Irish, so I know about the history of Magdalene Laundries, but many Americans may not know about them. My mother had a friend who was literally dragged away at age 13, and was thrown into the back of a priest’s car, and taken to one of these places. My mother never saw her again,” the scribe admitted. “That was a very visceral memory that I remember her sharing when I was relatively young. So I’ve always been shocked by this whole trauma that the whole country has experienced, but hasn’t really talked about enough.”
Clarke also revealed that she “had my own son when I was 17, in 1997, which is the year after the Magdalene Laundries closed. That was the mid-’90s, so that’s not ancient history,” she pointed out. “So I was very interested in these places. If I was born into a different family, and a few years earlier, I could have ended up in one…So this is something that’s very close to my heart.”
The producers of ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ “approached me, as well as several other directors. They had a very vague idea in the beginning about what they wanted to do with this movie. They had written about a page with this contemporary idea for a found-footage film that was set in an abandoned Magdalene Laundry in the modern day. They also wanted to shoot with GoPros,” the scribe divulged.
“I was interested in making a movie about the Magdalene Laundries, as I think it’s a great environment to explore real world horrors. I thought making a film about the Magdalene Laundries was a great idea, but I felt the story would best set during the peak point of the Laundries’ operation, so that we could get the true human drama,” Clarke shared.
“So I said, ‘Why don’t we set the story in 1960, and shoot it in 16mm? That way, we can get to the heart of the actual story, instead of just making it a standard modern-day found footage film?’ Luckily, they liked that idea, and that’s what brought us to where we are now,” the writer added.
“For me, the whole script was working out what this story is really about,” Clarke further revealed. “It’s about the actual horror of these places, and what went on there. It’s about the Catholic Church as a whole. It wasn’t just one bishop, priest or nun; it was the whole state of the church, and the structure it created. It created an environment where evil could be nurtured, and it was everyday, by ordinary people. So many people in the whole society were actually complicit, not just the Church. So that’s what this was really about for me.”
Clarke also discussed her experience of making her feature film directorial debut on ‘The Devil’s Doorway,’ especially since she’s the first woman to helm a horror movie in Northern Ireland. “It was important to me to be the first woman to direct a horror film in Northern Ireland, especially with this move. The genesis of that all just happened naturally, as the producers approached me to work on the movie, like I said earlier. I’m glad it worked out, because it seems logical and fitting that a story about women’s horrors would be directed by the country’s first female horror director.”
The helmer also admitted that she feels “lucky that the producers liked my ideas when they were looking for someone to direct the film. I think there should be a woman’s perspective on a movie like this one. I feel especially connected to this story, in terms of my mother’s friend being taken to one, as well as the fact that I could have brought to one myself, if I had been born a few years earlier. That allowed me to bring an empathy and sensitivity to the real victims.”
The casting process was something that Clarke also felt connected to during pre-production on ‘The Devil’s Doorway.’ “Norther Ireland is quite a small place, and everyone knows everybody else in this industry,” the filmmaker pointed out. “I’ve also done a lot of theater, and my husband works in theater, too. So I knew some of the actors already, or I knew of them, if I hadn’t worked with them on previous projects.”
Clarke then noted that she had previously knew Helena Bereen, who portrayed Mother Superior in the horror movie. “I had her in my mind’s eye from quite early on. I had an idea that she would be the right person for the role. We auditioned lots of people, but she proved to be the right fit for it,” the director shared.
But finding actors who were the right fit for the two priests was a more difficult process, Clarke admitted. “Lalor’s character was written slightly younger than he is in real life. So the casting director was sending people to us, and Lalor came in under the radar, because he was slightly out of the age range for Father Thomas. But he heard about the character from someone else, because again, the film community is small in Norther Ireland.
“So Lalor reached out to me personally, but I hadn’t met him before, although I had heard about him. He reached out to me and said, ‘I really want to audition for this.’ He ended up giving an amazing audition, and he proved to be the right person for the role,” the filmmaker revealed. “We auditioned a lot of people, but we just couldn’t find the right person, and it was getting close to the wire. But when he auditioned, we knew right away that he was it, and was born to play the character.”
The helmer then shared that “Ciaran Flynn plays Father Johnm, which is another role that was kind of difficult to cast. We needed to find someone who had a childish innocence, but doesn’t also appear stupid. The right actor needed to have a lovely naivety, which is hard to find. But Ciaran is one of the first people I thought about, because he worked with my husband in theater. I think he was working in London at the time we were casting the movie, and he ultimately proved to be the right person for this role.”
Lauren Coe, who played Kathleen, “was another really difficult role to cast. She was cast later in the process. We were actually already working on the set before we cast Lauren, because her scenes were some of the last ones we shot. But she did a really great job during the audition, and ultimately did an exceptional job on the set. We were really fortunate to cast her,” Clarke also noted.
Once all of the actors signed on to star in ‘The Devil’s Doorway,’ the filmmaker was able to have some rehearsal time with the cast. “But I didn’t get to rehearse with Lauren very much, because we were already shooting by the time she was cast, like I mentioned earlier. But I did talk to her at length about her character. I had more rehearsals with the rest of the cast, and scheduled rehearsal time before we began shooting,” Clarke shared.
“I think coming from theater, I’m used to having rehearsals, and it seems like the natural way to work, rather than just discussing things on the set. Having that rehearsal time is how I like to work, and I have yet to meet an actor who also doesn’t want to rehearse; they usually want to do as much work as possible,” the director admitted. “When you’re working with film, you especially don’t want to first look for the moments when you go onto the set. So we were able to be quite economical in what we shot…and I think that really paid off.”
Working with the actors and actresses on their physicalities in advance was something that Clarke found particularly helpful. “We blocked a lot of it before we got to the set, so we would know what we’d be working with, once we began filmming. We aso had a professional stunt director who was in charge of that aspect of the movie. But overall, it was all about being prepared,” the filmmaker shared.
“Lauren had some stunts, and that was new for her; she had never done stunts like that before. The DP (Director of Photography), Ryan (Kernaghan), also did some stunts himself. He had never done them before, but was game to doing whatever,” Clarke revealed.
“In one instance, Ryan had to be braced up and flung out of a room, while holding the camera. In the scene, it appears to be the older priest, as we imply that he’s holding the camera, but of course, it was Ryan who was holding it. Ryan even wore the characters’ clothing, so when they’re running around the passageways, and you see one of their legs, it’s probably Ryan in costume,” the helmer also divulged.
Further discussing her collaboration with Kernaghan as the DP on the found-footage horror movie, Clarke also commented that “We knew, for the most part, what we were going to do with the camera before we got to the set. So we had a sense of what each scene was going to need from the camera. Of course, that was always up for change on the day, especially if we had time while something else was being set up. We’d say, ‘Why don’t we instead try it like this?’ That process occurred mainly between Ryan and me,” the filmmaker disclosed. “That was an on-going process that occurred until the end of the shoot. The actors were game to go along with whatever we thought would work.”
Clarke also pointed out that “In contrast to many other footage footage films, where there’s just a lot of running around, which has become an established element of this sub-genre, there are a lot of moments in our movie where the shots are still on a tripod. There are a lot of monologues that feature one of the characters just talking straight to the camera.
“So our film is slightly unusual, in some respects, in terms of how found footage films are usually shot. I think that’s because my references weren’t entirely other found footage films, which I do enjoy…There are some that I really love,” the director conceded. “But for ‘The Devil’s Doorway,’ it was about looking at it more as a documentary than a found footage film.”
With the characters running through the passageways after they arrived at the Magdalene Laundry, for instance, Clarke noted that “the script obviously requires certain things that we needed for the location, so it was just about finding the right places. There were a couple of places that we stitched together” to create one larger, cohesive setting. “We had a really great locations manager, who searched every tiny corner of the country, and was able to find the right locations. We partially shot in a big, old house in Belfast, and that’s where the main body of the house is, and the church is also there.”
While making a low-budget film like ‘The Devil’s Doorway,’ the filmmaker also explained that “you have to work with what you’ve got. Things can change slightly in the script, because you have to make the best use of the location and space that you have and can pay for. You can change the space to fit the script, based on the budget that you have.”
After Clarke later finished the post-production process on the horror movie this past January, its sales agents “brought it to the market at the Berlin Film Festival in April. It was picked up very shortly after that by IFC for the American distribution,” the helmer disclosed. “We then had a limited film festival run. We screened in America at the Seattle International Film Festival in May, which was the first time the public saw the movie. Then next time the public saw it was during Cinepocalypse in Chicago a few weeks ago.”
The filmmaker added that she feels fortunate the drama was “picked up by IFC, and it’s getting released, so quickly. We were prepared to be on the film festival circuit for a full year, and do a lot more of that groundwork.”
Working with IFC Midnight on ‘The Devil’s Doorway’s American release was a process that Clarke described as “fantastic. I’ve loved working with them, and they’re all really nice people. It’s nice to be attached to a company like that. I love the work they’ve done on promoting the film; we all agreed on the poster and trailer, which were great. So I’m really happy to have worked with IFC.”